NOVEMBER
1993

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

11-11-93

Mythology, Psychology, and Bagworms

Psyche was a princess in Greek mythology. Her story is a suitable plot for a modern daytime soap opera. It seems that the goddess Aphrodite was jealous of Psyche's beauty. She ordered her son Eros, sometimes called Cupid, to shoot Psyche with an arrow and make her fall in love with some undesirable man. Cupid accidentally shot himself, and it was he who fell in love — with none other than Psyche.

There are more sordid details to the myth, but in the end the love struck Eros ran away and the evil Aphrodite caused Psyche to work herself to death. The happy ending is that Psyche was brought back to life and given immortality by Zeus. Thus, the Greek word psyche was used to mean soul or mind.

The name of the mythological princess shows up in words associated with the study of the human mind. Such words include psychology, psychoanalysis, and psychologist. Her name also is used in the word Psychidae, a family name for a group of insects known as bagworms. These insects are pests of trees. The immatures are caterpillars that live in a sack, hence their common name bagworm.

The connection between Greek mythology, psychology, and bagworms is not as farfetched as it may seem. Many ancient people, including Native Americans, associated moths with the souls or spirits of dead people. It was probably an easy connection since wakes were quiet times frequently accompanied by candlelight, a natural attraction for night-flying moths.

Further links to the idea that moths represent the soul are found in the Latin word Phalaenae, a name for a kind of moth. We find the connection in Phalaenopsis, the generic name for a plant known as the moth orchid. A similar connection is in the scientific name of the butterfly plant, Phalaenopsis anabilis.

The connection between Psyche and insects also was recognized by ancient artists who frequently pictured Psyche as a beautiful young maiden with butterfly wings. Such was the characterization of wood nymphs, those mythical creatures who have haunted humankind for time immemorial.

Poets also have recognized the value of the link between Psyche and the lowly moth. For example, Frank Dempster Sherman in his poem “Moths” begins with the line “Ghosts of departed winged things” and ends with the warning that if moths get too close to the candle flame they might “Endure a second death!”

But I can't help wondering if psychologists are bugged by the fact that the name of their profession has an insect connection!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann